Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery (FGCS) -- or 'designer vagina' surgery as it is more affectionately known -- is one of Britain's fastest growing cosmetic surgery procedures and has captured the attention (and imaginations) of both the public and media.
But what exactly is involved? HuffPost UK Lifestyle decided to ask experts to explain this scary-sounding beauty trend and tell us whether it's anything to worry about.
The term 'designer vagina' is an umbrella term used to describe female genital surgery. Strictly speaking the term defines procedures carried out for cosmetic reasons, but is often also used to refer to functional (medical) procedures.
The lack of standard terminology used by clinics offering 'designer vagina' surgery was noted in a study by Dr Sarah Creighton from the UCL Institute of Women's Health, who described the quality of internet information available for women opting for “designer vagina” procedures as “poor”.
Across the 10 sites she analysed, 72 different words were used to describe procedures. These included “vulval reshaping”, “vulva and vaginal rejuvenation”, “revirgination” and “Mommy Makeover”.
What is causing the rise in 'designer vagina' surgery?
"Most women trim, pluck, shave or wax their pubic hair these days so their labia are exposed in a way they never used to be," says artist Jamie McCartney, whose work 'The Great Wall of Vagina' focuses on female genital anxiety.
He adds that female genitalia is often airbrushed in pornography magazines, which has fostered an unrealistic idea how the ideal woman should look.
However, Paul Banwell, plastic cosmetic surgeon and member of British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle that the desire to change one's intimate appearance is entirely natural.
"With labiaplasty people realise that they can change something they may have been worried about for a long time," he says. "It's empowering women with the ability to have choice. Choice is important."
Common Website Terms Explained...
- Labiaplasty: Removing a section of labia tissue
- Hymenoplasty: When the hymen (tissue lining the vaginal opening) is restored
- G-spot amplification: Collagen is injected to the G-spot to increase its size, which is alleged to increase female sexual arousal
- Vaginal Rejuvenation: When tissue of the vagina is strengthened
What is 'normal'?
According to McCartney, who cast hundreds of casts of female genitalia for his artwork, “there is no such thing as an average penis or vagina."
"They vary in dimension, shape and colours. Just the same as any other part of the body.”
“Only about 5% of the casts for my project are tiny and 'tidy' like the dominant media images we are fed everyday. Does this mean that 95% of women have defective or abnormal vaginas? No, it does not.”
'The Great Wall of Vagina' exhibited in Milan
According to a study published in the BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology female genitalia does indeed vary hugely in size and shape, which can make it difficult to quantify what's 'normal'.
However, plastic surgeon Mr Banwell tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle that he will turn away patients if he genuinely feels they have no cause for concern.
"Sometimes when I see a patient, I will tell them that they are completely normal. I will send them away and that will be that," he says.
"It’s not my job to sell an operation, I am there to give good quality advice," he adds. "High street clinics work on commission, but I'm not a salesperson. I'm an independent doctor, with a reputation to uphold."
Who is having the procedure?
However, the NHS refuted these claims and issued the following statement:
"While the study does accurately quote NHS statistics showing more than 300 labiaplasties were performed by the NHS on girls aged 14 or younger in the last six years, there is no evidence that these operations were performed for cosmetic reasons (to create ‘designer vaginas’)."
In a statement a spokesperson for the Department of Health denied that the NHS offers 'designer vagina' surgery:
“There is no such thing a designer vagina on the NHS. Of course there is cosmetic surgery carried out on the NHS, but this is only for patients who have a clinical need for it (such as reconstructive surgery after an accident) and absolutely not for those who would simply like to have it done.”
Mr Banwell explains that while there is no minimum age for cosmetic surgery, the number of procedures carried out on young people is very small.
“BAAPS does not recommend cosmetic surgery for under 18s. But there are always exceptions," he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. "Sometimes recommendations will come from a GP, but they will always be in exceptional circumstances and parental consent is a necessity.”
Mr Banwell revealed that his practise has seen a 300% increase over the past five years and says that there are many potential factors that could have caused the increase.
“Labiaplasty has become my area of interest and expertise and overtime this has lead to an increase in referrals,” he says.
“There has also been much more about it in the media, on the internet and on TV, which increases awareness about the procedure.”
What can a woman expect during her consultation?
Mr Banwell tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle that is is important that careful consultation is carried out with each individual to deem whether surgery is appropriate.
According to his website, Mr Banwell expects to see all patients at least twice (more if required) and his team will be on hand to answer any questions throughout the process. He recommends that patients explore the subject area themselves using the internet and other resources.
"The risks and complications need to be discussed, and then patients need a cooling-off period to think about it," he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. "If necessary they may need to be referred to a psychologist."
What are the benefits?
There has been little research into the benefits of having surgery, but there are case studies that suggest it has vastly improved the lives and self-esteem of some women.
Award-winning documentary project Centrefold, which was released in July 2012, explores the ethics of labiaplasty. Using commentary from three women who have had the procedure, it offers a fantastic insight into the journey many women face.
Based on the study by Dr Creighton, Buzzfeed have grouped a selection of unsubstantiated claims made by clinics concerning the physical and sexual benefits of having 'designer vagina' surgery.
Are there any complications?
"There is a small complication rate and it is a surgeon's duty to explain that," says Mr Banwell.
"There is a chance of bleeding, infection, haematoma formation and return to theatre, urinary infections and thrush. In addition, numbness, minor asymmetry and wound problems can also occur as well as alteration in libido. Clitoral damage is also a well-recognised, but fortunately rare, complication following labiaplasty surgery," according to his website.
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